Easygoing Guide to Natural Florida; Volume 2, Central Florida by Douglas Waitley. Pineapple Press, paper 2008.
Douglas Waitley has, indeed, provided us with an easy-does-it guide to Florida’s wonderful and accessible natural areas. That does not mean, however, that he is easygoing in his opinions, which are presented to us in large doses. He gets around in his car, avoids overnight camping and arduous hikes. He boards riverboats rather than paddling a canoe. He notes that cyclists are interested in speed, not terrain. Mostly traveling alone, he gets into one-on-one conversations with the solitary fishermen that he encounters. Or birdwatchers.
Next to fishermen, birdwatchers constitute the largest audience for his often contrary remarks. He talked with a woman who had been watching a hawk fishing and voiced her admiration for this aggressive bird. Waitley’s dry response to her exuberance: “What about the fish?”
The first half of the book finds him at the headwaters of the St. Johns River, where he contemplates this largely managed river and the chain of lakes which it drains. Much of the area is in the Ocala National Forest, east and south of Ocala. Several magnificent springs feed the St. Johns its waters, via the Ocklawaha River. The St. Johns is perhaps the most “historic” of Florida’s rivers. It saw action in the Civil War, participated in the cattle business, and later the cotton economy. Its fresh waters have been the cause of many a squabble over water rights.
Much of the area was logged in the early part of the last century, and the forests that Waitley admires are mostly second growth. Exotic flora and fauna are a major problem; “suburban estates” are a relatively recent exotic. But the original biodiversity of the swamps and drier areas is recovering. He admires the mix of longleaf pines, turkey oaks, and wiregrass. Lots of water birds and indigenous mammals, including the black bear, are coming back – despite the fragmentation of the forests. There is a continuing threat of wild fires, usually caused by lightening.
The St Johns acquired a tourist industry in the early twentieth century. President Roosevelt’s Civilian Conservation Corp and the Works Progress Administration acquired land and built infrastructure to facilitate that use. The pleasantly quaint structures are now serving as visitor centers
More recently the proposal for a Cross Florida Barge Canal threatened to alter the Ocklawaha and other tributaries of the St. Johns. Begun in the 1930s during the New Deal, the Canal’s construction was halted during WWII. Fortunately the Canal never happened thanks to The Florida Defenders of the Environment. But we still have the Kirkpatrick Dam, part of the Canal’s infrastructure, and hence their continuing demand that we “Set the Ocklawaha Free.”
On to the “Nature Coast,” beginning at Tampa Bay. Waitley has crossed over a peninsular “divide,” a central “highland” that results in the St. Johns and its tributaries flowing north into the Atlantic, while another set of rivers on the west side of the Florida peninsula flow into the Gulf of Mexico.
Florida’s Gulf Coast is a product of its salt marshes which dominate the mouths of its rivers, the Withlacoochee and the Suwannee. The Gulf does not provide waves, hence no sandy beaches. The Big Bend’s most prominent vegetation are the mangrove swamps. Its bays shelter several good-sized mammals: the porpoise (dolphin) and the manatee. The marshes are the winter habitat for migratory birds. This region is looked after by the Southwest Water Management District called Swiftmud.
Cedar Key is perhaps the most interesting of the Gulf’s coastal towns. This and adjoining keys lost their cedar trees, harvested to be used as railroad ties. After the adoption of creosote, cedar railroad ties were phased out. Cedar was a common ingredient in lead pencils and Cedar Key continued to be a manufacturing town. It was also a port city, being the terminus of a railroad from its wharfs to Fernandina, on the Atlantic Ocean side. The Key’s mangrove swamps are recovering nicely from a hard freeze 30 years ago.
Leaving the salt marshes and driving north and east brings the motorist into Gainesville and the nearby Devil’s Millhopper Geological State Park and Paynes Prairie Preserve State Park. The Devil’s Millhopper is a huge sink hole, the result of Florida being on a limestone shelf that is vulnerable to salt water intrusion and collapse, in this case centuries ago. The Prairie is the remains of a large, shallow lake. It played a role in the establishment and then demise of the region’s citrus industry.
Waitley pays relatively little attention to the Seminoles or other Native Americans, the invasion of their lands by white agriculturalists and their slave workforce. Nor does he mention East Florida and West Florida, chunks of the Spanish New World along the Gulf Coast.
I’ll take Douglas Waitley’s Easygoing Guide to Natural Florida with me when I explore the various State Parks and Preserves. The parks are a wonderful resource, and damn it, not to be swallowed up by coastal condominiums and golf courses.